Millenials and Politics: Not ideologically confused, just dissatisfied with options

Author: | February 12, 2015 10:00 am

Last week, I wrote about how young people have become increasingly disillusioned with American politics, and I finished by asking a difficult question: what can be done about this issue?

This week, I will be exploring that question even more with an article about the millennial political mind.

What do young people think about the role of government in national life and in their lives? Last October, Abby Johnston of Vox Magazine wrote that “for all of the dissecting of [millennials’] ideological paradoxes, the world is fascinated to see when the generation branded as ‘unpredictable’ and ‘apathetic’ will decide their votes.”

While an entire article about millennial political ideology may seem like an incredibly tedious (or even useless) exercise, understanding why millennials do not turn out to vote at high rates begins with knowing what young people want out of politics. Are millennials just ideologically confused, or are they willing to look at government in a less restrictive way?

Some would argue the former, that millennials have such a shallow understanding of American politics that their thoughts about government are rambling at best and scrambled at worst. And there is polling data to support this idea. Last July, The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson pointed to a survey in which 57% of millennials said that they wanted a smaller government when the word “taxes” was mentioned in the survey question. Conversely, when the word “taxes” was not included, 54% of millennials answered that they wanted a larger government. Reason-Rupe’s 2014 survey of millennials concluded that, “millennials are not committed to one ideological form of government action.” Instead, “millennials display a certain degree of economic self-interest,” as Vox.com’s Dylan Matthews wrote last year.

Is there any room for a broader political ideology among millennials interested in their own economic well-being?

There is plenty of room. Millennials’ concern about their own financial interests mirrors a desire for fiscal responsibility in the government. The Reason-Rupe survey found that on economic issues, a majority of millennials describe themselves as either conservative or “in the middle.” Hollie Russon Gilman of the Brookings Institute wrote, “unlike previous generations that were highly influenced by partisan brand loyalty, millennials are more concerned with outcomes.” Perhaps this non-partisan interest in having an effective government contributes to an economic conservatism in many millennials.

However, young Americans may be economically rightward-leaning, but they are socially leftward-lurching. In other words, millennials are far more socially liberal than they are fiscally conservative. The Reason-Rupe survey found that 40% of millennials identify as “strong liberals” on social issues, while 49% identified as moderates of both sides, or as centrists. The data is clear: millennials who see themselves as “strong conservatives” on social issues are a rare breed.

Many observers look at this evidence of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism among millennials and see an ideological “blend.” Reason’s Emily Ekins wrote that “perhaps one reason millennials aren’t more Democratic is that they aren’t simply liberal, but are social liberals and fiscal centrists.” Does this mean that young people are politically disoriented? No, Abby Johnston argues, writing that “it’s not that millennials are confused about their ideology; they’re ready to reject it altogether.”

What is the takeaway here? How does this understanding of millennial “hybrid” politics help us encourage more youth participation in voting? To start, the two major parties should use this understanding to influence the way they talk about government. Hallie Russon Gilman wrote that “millennials often critique the efficacy…of government, but they still believe that government has the potential to be a positive force for solving society’s problems.” That being said, it should be painfully obvious as to which political party has the most work to do in this area. Emily Ekins wrote that “particularly Republicans…will need to move toward greater fiscal responsibility and social tolerance to remain competitive among this cohort.”

When it comes to winning millennials’ political support, the Republican party faces an uphill climb. What can conservatives do to win young voters to their cause and engage them on issues that matter to millennials?

Next week, we’ll discuss exactly that.

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